Friday, May 28, 2004

The war on terror finds its Tokyo Rose

Left-wing e-zine Salon, no longer content with preaching to the choir, wants to reinvent itself. This weekend the editors are offering free annual subscriptions to active-duty military personnel.

Here are a few goodies they've already received from the American Left:

- A stirring campaign speech from John Kerry that accuses the US of unilateralism, claims that America is no longer respected throughout the world, and asserts that "we are in deep trouble in Iraq." (Good for morale, that one.)

- An even more stirring speech from former vice-president Al Gore, who states that President Bush has brought "deep dishonor" to the United States, and that American soldiers are doomed to die in an "incompetent" foreign war. (Gore describes Abu Ghraib prison as "an American Gulag of dark rooms with naked prisoners to be 'stressed' and even -- we must use the word -- tortured -- to force them to say things that legal procedures might not induce them to say.")

- A charming blog entry (from the ironically named "War Room") stating that "the Iraq mess [is] disintegrating more each day," and "that we're actually not winning the war on terror thanks to [Bush's] failed policies ...."

- An op-ed on the future US ambassador to Iraq, which blithely quips "that the abuses exposed at Abu Ghraib prison could be, rather than an aberration, a warm-up for fun and games yet to come."

- A portrait of a sunburned Indiana hippie who says he's exposed a plethora of atrocities perpetrated by the US military. (The article reveals that in the fall of 2002, as America prepared to attack Saddam Hussein, this self-proclaimed human-rights activist aided the mass-murdering despot by volunteering as a "human shield." Which makes him a hypocrite, a traitor to his country, and a worthy candidate for the Darwin Awards.)

- A feature article claiming that the million-plus listeners of American Forces Radio (most of them active-duty military personnel) are "uninformed" because AFR carries conservative Rush Limbaugh and not liberal Al Franken.

- An animated cartoon by San Francisco-based satirist Mark Fiore, which breathlessly announces that "Homegrown Gun Violence" is "not just for Iraqis!" (Warning: A child is gunned down at the end of this cartoon. You can see the kid's chest implode, briefly.)

And that's just this week, gentle readers. If our fighting men and women sign up for Salon magazine, they can get this bilious anti-American, anti-military spew delivered gratis to their PC, every single day for a whole year!

Frankly, I think this "special promotion" is a really good idea. Our active-duty military ought to see for themselves just what the "mainstream" American Left really thinks of them (as if they didn't already know). Yet the folks at Salon aren't that extreme as left-wingers go. Like fifty-five percent of journalists, they believe that the media have gone too easy on Bush; like far too many Democrats, they believe the war in Iraq is a hopeless quagmire. But I can't imagine Salon claiming, as Susan Sontag has, that al-Qaeda terrorists are somehow better than decadent imperialist capitalist Americans. Nor do I think it would state, as Michael Moore has, that "The Iraqis who have risen up against the occupation are not "insurgents" or "terrorists" or "The Enemy." They are the REVOLUTION, the Minutemen, and their numbers will grow -- and they will win."

No, the folks at Salon aren't particularly depraved. They're just a bunch of normal American left-liberals, saying what they truly believe. That's why it's important for the rest of us to see just how much these people hate their military, hate their president, hate their flag and hate the country for which it stands.

Remember, Axis Sally and Tokyo Rose were Americans, too.

Update (6/1): Left-wing cartoonist Tom Tomorrow predicts "humiliating defeat" in Iraq. If we don't lose now, I suppose he'll just get even angrier. I wonder how many American GIs signed up for those free subscriptions.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

ClarkWatch: The Generalissimo Returns

Weaselly Wesley is back, and this time he's writing for the New Republic. But as was true throughout his presidential campaign, whenever he opens his mouth it's only to change feet.

This time, Clark's target is the fighting in Iraq, which just isn't going well enough for him: "But today, 14 months later, the mission is in shambles, scarred by rising Iraqi popular discontent, continued attacks against U.S. forces, infiltration of foreign fighters, mounting civil strife, and no credible sense of direction." Of course, things would be much better if Clark were still running the show. Just look at Bosnia -- or better yet, don't. After years of occupation, all that battle-scarred region has to show is a thriving underaged sex trade (mostly rented out to UN personnel). And if you think US soldiers have been abusive in Iraq, wait till you hear what the usually placid Canadians have been up to in Bosnia. UN peacekeepers make Lord of the Flies look like Jane Austen.

Naturally, Clark wants much greater UN involvement in Iraq, including "hundreds of skilled administrators, lawyers, jurists, and political scientists." (With their help, perhaps Iraq could develop an underaged sex trade to rival Bosnia's.) In the past, the UN has done its part to keep Iraq under its iron heel, with an "oil-for-food" program that resulted in cheaper gasoline for France and Germany, kickbacks for UN officials and their immediate families, billion-dollar palaces for Saddam Hussein, and slow starvation for the Iraqi people: With proper guidance, a UN-sponsored committee could keep Iraq in the Dark Ages almost indefinitely. Just like Bosnia. And to make sure the Iraqis keep suffering, Clark wants this committee to feature input from peace-loving Arab nations ... like Iran and Syria.

It won't be easy to convince skeptical Americans to include Iran and Syria on an international UN-supervised committee to distribute aid and comfort to the Iraqi people. After all, most of the alleged "Iraqi insurgents" fighting US troops in the streets of Fallujah and Baghdad hail from these neighboring countries, and the UN is still miffed over losing their lucrative "oil-for-food" program. Getting Iraqis to understand that their former enemies truly have their own best interests at heart will be an even harder sell. But the Generalissimo is a kind soul, full of compassion for democracy's implacable foes. These countries are not really bad, you see. They're just frightened:

In essence, the Bush administration has scared Iran and Syria into believing that, if the United States is successful in its occupation of Iraq, they will be the next targets. To the Iranians and Syrians, the implication is that their survival depends on dragging the U.S. mission in Iraq into failure. Furthermore, America's perceived pro-Israel bias, and its failure to engage seriously in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has fed the poisonous atmosphere fueling Arab anger toward the United States and its efforts in Iraq. 

Leave it to a Clinton crony to feel a terrorist's pain. Since Iran and Syria are sending mujahedeen over the Iraqi border to kill random civilians (and soldiers), blow up buildings, and stifle any nascent Iraqi government, the nation responsible for these terrorist attacks must be ... not Iran or Syria, but the United States itself! We Americans have introduced a "dynamic of conflict" into the Middle East, says Clark. Now I didn't know the Middle East needed our help in this regard. Presumably that same "dynamic of conflict" does not include the Iran-Iraq War, Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, multiple attacks against Israel over the past fifty-six years, and roughly five thousand years of ethnic infighting prior to that. Yet according to Clark, if we were only a bit nicer to these mullahs, imams and ayatollahs, and gave them a major role in Iraq's reconstruction, they might be so grateful they'll stop trying to blow us up. Oh, and we also ought to force Israel to concede lots of territory to the Palestinians, which would "help dispel Arab anger and enhance U.S. credibility in the region and abroad." Got that, gentle reader? Clark says we can build credibility by selling our sole regional ally down the river.

But on to the nitty-gritty: What sort of government does Clark want in Iraq? Well, certainly not an "American-style democracy," which he claims is "too ambitious" for us to accomplish. Instead, Clark wants a "representative system" of government with a "bicameral national structure" like a House and a Senate. That sounds like an American-style democracy to me. But any resemblance to America will be more a matter of form than content, Clark notes. An Iraqi democracy could well be theocratic, and we'll just have to live with it: "Of course, we will encourage Iraq to adhere to international human rights standards, but, in the end, the Iraqis will have to choose for themselves laws and norms that reflect their morals and culture." If the Iraqis decide that wife beating and sha'ria law are good additions to their new state, that's their right.

Which was pretty much our policy toward Afghanistan's Taliban regime prior to September 2001. You probably remember how that turned out.

In the end, Clark seems to want one basic thing for the Iraqi people: "a military strong enough to secure the country's borders, defeat any local, unauthorized militia, and enforce the rule of law." (For General Clark, effective government always involves calling in the troops.) This idea of using the military to "enforce the rule of law" is a touch worthy of Uncle Saddam himself. We have plenty of words for a government that imposes permanent martial law on its citizens, but democracy and republic are not among them. Indeed, Clark doesn't even seem too happy that we deposed Saddam in the first place; he still claims that the liberation of Iraq was "unnecessary." If our favorite Generalissimo had his way, the old despot would still be in power, murdering thousands of Iraqis every month, tens of thousands of Iraqis every year. We know because we've opened the mass graves and tried to identify the bodies. Yet in Clark's eyes, whatever Saddam's faults may have been, he at least knew how to create and sustain a large military machine to keep his country safe -- at least, when he wasn't busy paying suicide bombers to attack Israeli buses.

Frankly, I'd like to see the Generalissimo explain his position to the people of Iraq. Sorry, folks, but I think we shoulda left Saddam alone. As for your dead friends and family -- well, that's just your problem, isn't it?

For a closing line, Clark admonishes us that "The last thing we want to do in Iraq is stay the course." He might well say that, since over the past fourteen months the Bush administration has put him to shame. Thanks to brutal, incompetent American unilateralism, coalition forces have ended fighting in over two-thirds of the nation. The Iraqi people are eating again. They're even buying satellite dishes and computers, now that electric service is available for more than two hours a day. Iraqi police assist us with anti-terrorist operations. A provisional national government is set to take over on June 30, with national elections scheduled for early next year. In all likelihood, the Iraqi people will progress from domination, to foreign occupation, to a large measure of self-governance in two years. They are likely to attain a level of prosperity, entrepreneurship, and individual self-determination that would make them the envy of their Arab neighbors (which would certainly explain those terrorist attacks).

Iraq is no Vietnam, no Bosnia, and no quagmire. But if we're stupid enough to follow Clark's advice, it could yet become all three.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": When Things Fall Down

Over the past few days, I've been talking about the recent collapse of the Charles de Gaulle Terminal in Paris with Mike, an architecture student in his early twenties. Some time ago, he and I had a pleasant discussion on the "plasticity" of available building materials, and how computer-aided design has made possible new building forms, and new ways for people to interact with designed spaces. These "plastic" buildings often look like just-landed alien spacecraft, and being inside them can be exciting, in a sort of panicky, disoriented way. Most of all, they're young and fresh and unpredictable.

After reading the schadenfreude of fellow bloggers, I had forgotten that there are people who genuinely love these buildings -- among whom, I learned, was my friend Mike. He's a big fan of Paul Andreu, who designed the De Gaulle terminal to embody the new "plasticity," and he believes Andreu will be exonerated in an upcoming investigation. In any case, my friend doesn't want this guy's career to be cut short by this accident, because Andreu, he claims, is one of the two or three top architects currently practicing.

My friend's insights are always intelligent, and he knows much more about buildings and design than I do. Yet as I heard him defend the architectural ideals he holds dear against one horrible, unavoidable fact -- The building fell down! -- I could, alas, think of only one thing: This guy is in his early twenties.

Men and women in their early twenties tend to believe very strongly in things that don't work. For example, when I was that age, I was head-over-heels in love with leftism, with postmodernism, especially with Michel Foucault. I read Adrienne Rich's poetry and liked it (and I still enjoy some of it, for different reasons). Though still nominally in the closet at the time, I could at least be a hardcore feminist. I could bemoan American democracy and its right-wing values with the best leftists out there, and thrilled to the idea that a revolution would soon bring us a fresh world, young and unpredictable like I was. I worked with left-wing organizations, I got involved in the gay-rights movement, I wrote leftist term papers, I put in long hours trying to bring this new world to birth.

And the revolution failed. In the end, I suppose I was lucky that it managed to deflate quietly, with no harm done. The Mensheviks of 1918 were far less fortunate -- as were Weimar Germans who believed Hitler would save them, as were the Chinese who put their faith in Chairman Mao, as were the intellectuals who supported Pol Pot ... and as, in a different way, were the poor wayfarers who perished when the roof of the DeGaulle terminal collapsed and crushed them. Usually when revolutions fail, people die horribly. Sometimes only a few perish, sometimes millions.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey."

The title of Wordsworth's "Lines" -- which most high-school students know incorrectly, though perhaps not inappropriately, as "Tintern Abbey" -- has all the immediacy of a journal entry. The subheading gives a place (the banks of the Wye River), a situation (the poet is on a short vacation), and even a date: "July 13, 1798." The poem's first lines offer a sense of the time span Wordsworth is working with: "Five years have past, five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!" On the most obvious level, Wordsworth is telling us that he last visited this spot along the Wye River not so very long ago. Yet the spondee in the second line -- "five long winters" draws out the sense of time, giving us a sense that for the speaker -- most likely Wordsworth himself -- the lapse between then and now has expanded into something more than a mere half-decade.

What made those winters so long? Here, I think, it helps to know a bit about the author and the times. Wordsworth is twenty-eight when he writes this poem. In 1793, when he last visited the Wye, he was a fresh-faced twenty-three year old. And like many kids his age, he looked forward to a brave new world: Just across the Channel from England, France was in the midst of a major revolution. The French Revolution came with real promise: The poverty that plagued the countryside would cease to exist, now that the government would ensure a more equitable distribution of wealth. The deposition of the nobility would bring in a new era of "liberty, equality and fraternity" -- a spirit which might eventually spread to England and eventually make the whole world anew. It must have been an exciting time to be young and revolutionary.

But of course, that same year the Reign of Terror began in earnest, and the French Revolution finally showed its true face. Cries for blood suddenly replaced cries for brotherhood. By 1798, Napoleon had begun his rise to power, and the French were forging an empire even as the country itself became bloodier and more chaotic. It's at this moment that Wordsworth sits on the banks of the river, all of twenty-eight years old, and reflects on those values and theories he believed in when he was only twenty-three.

The opening section of the poem -- the technical term is "verse paragraph," and the poem has five of them -- repeats the word "again" (or "Once again") like a mantra. The speaker keeps receding further into memory, compelled by this all-too-familiar landscape to face his own past. At least the landscape itself hasn't altered much, or so it would seem. But signs of change and modernity are nonetheless present, especially with "These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines / Of sportive wood run wild." The reference to "lines" should immediately grab your attention, gentle reader, considering that the poem's title is also "Lines." But it's important in another way, too. Those "hedge-rows" are fences for traditional family farms -- farms which were going out of business at about this time.

Wordsworth knows that the "lines" he sees are anything but "sportive wood run wild," and that the farms within these lines are more conducive to rural squalor instead of spiritual solitude. He's written about the poverty and hopelessness of rural life before, in poems like "The Old Cumberland Beggar," "We Are Seven," or "Goody Blake and Harry Gill." These aren't great poems, by any means, but they show that Wordsworth knew much more about the people in this landscape than he's letting on here. It's no coincidence that Wordsworth ends this paragraph on withdrawal -- from the present, from his fellow men, from social and economic conditions, perhaps even from the world itself -- with the image of a cave "where by his fire / The Hermit sits alone."

Having sufficiently abstracted himself from the scene, he proceeds to tell us what this landscape once meant to him. This second "verse paragraph" is where he has his loftiest and most eloquent spiritual epiphany. There are moral benefits -- the good feelings this aestheticized countryside inspires "that best portion of a good man's life / His little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love." Good thoughts lead to good deeds. But there is also a sort of transcendence Wordsworth describes, in which the third-person "him" gives way to the more general first-person "We." This transcendent state allows us to "become a living soul" and "see into the life of things." Lovely little theory, no? It could even be revolutionary.

But as Wordsworth knows, revolutions fail:

If this/
Be but a vain belief ...

For the first time in the poem, Wordsworth says "If." Whenever I hear that word, I think of Linus and The Great Pumpkin: As Linus says, "One little slip like that, and the Great Pumpkin could pass you by." Of course, the Great Pumpkin -- be it transcendence, or revolution, or some brave new world -- has already passed Wordsworth by. His "if" is not a mere slip of the tongue; this single word has brought all the beautiful theories and pretty platitudes in the second paragraph crashing down around our ears. Now, faced with a choice between nihilism ("Believe nothing and die") or pragmatism ("Believe something for the good it does you, if for no other reason"), Wordsworth opts, sensibly, for pragmatism:

... yet oh! how oft --
In darkness and amid the many shapes
Of joyless daylight; when the fretful stir
Unprofitable, and the fever of the world,
Have hung upon the beatings of my heart --
How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee,
O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro' the woods,
How often has my spirit turned to thee!

This is all that's left of the second paragraph once the mysticism has been excised -- and it isn't much, as the stammering, repetitive "how oft" makes clear. At a little over eight lines, the third verse paragraph is by far the shortest section of the poem, yet it contains the moment of severest crisis as well as some inkling of a possible resolution. If everything Wordsworth has said in the first two sections has been "vain" or wrong, if all his beautiful theories really have collapsed under their own weight, then the only thing left to him is the sort of heartbroken, personal comfort that comes by believing in a single thing: God, Brittania, the Great Pumpkin, or (in Wordsworth's case) the Wye River. This is not the resolution Wordsworth will eventually choose, but it's a step forward.

Wordsworth has just had a "Great Pumpkin" moment of doubt and disillusionment, but unlike poor Linus, he's not going to wait in the same spot every year (or for that matter, every five years) for some dream of youth that always vanishes. The fourth verse paragraph attempts to reconstruct a vision of the self, to regain a sense of purpose, and to carry on within the ruins of the old, demolished faith. (It's no coincidence, in this incredibly meticulous poem, that Tintern Abbey, the only church mentioned, is in ruins; everywhere this poem signals the ruin of faith.) "And so," says Wordsworth, "I dare to hope, / Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first I came among these hills ...."

Now, instead of focusing on the similarities between the present and the recent past, he reflects on the differences, which are mostly centered in himself. The landscape is pretty much the same, but he has changed, matured from when he was twenty-three: He's older, wiser, maybe a little more self-absorbed, as older people often are. He can't experience nature with the sort of immediacy he knew when "The sounding cataract / Haunted me like a passion ...." Yet the realization of personal change brings with it the sort of stiff-upper-lip resolution that frequently surfaces in Wordsworth's best poetry: "Not for this / Faint I, nor mourn nor murmur: other gifts / Have followed; for such loss, I would believe / Abundant recompense." This isn't a grim determination to "grieve not, rather find / Strength in what remains behind," as Wordsworth would write in "Ode: Intimations of Immortality". Here, Wordsworth notes that although he's lost something important, he's also found something just as good, if not better:

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused ...
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

Nice idea. This new awareness, however tentatively presented ("I trust," "I would believe," and other qualifiers abound in this fourth section), becomes Wordsworth's version of a "fortunate fall": Though revolutions fail, theories come undone, and beautiful buildings still collapse, everything brings us closer to some elemental faith in what is rather than what might be. Wordsworth "cannot paint" what he once was, but in exchange for that loss he's found something bigger, stranger, more ambiguous -- possibly God, possibly something else. At this point, we should be a bit alarmed: If the last theory didn't work, this one probably won't either. And true to form, these pretty beliefs collapse in the next paragraph.

All the same, the poem must have closure and resolution, and Wordsworth does his best to provide it: He introduces his sister Dorothy, and presents her as his best chance to embrace life anew in the face of disillusionment. Yet paradoxically, though the passage appears to embrace something, Wordsworth's language here is full of negatives: "Nor," "never," "neither." Given Wordsworth's reluctance (in this poem, at least) to embrace any theory or proposition without subsequently rejecting it, it's important that, in the end, he stages his newfound, hard-won faith as an act of resistance:

.. that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.

Even as Wordsworth presents a central tenet of his new faith, "that all which we behold / Is full of blessings," he presents example after example to undermine it. And of course, this final paragraph has not one, but two Ifs to assail the poet's certainty. In the end, we may not be so far from the grim determination of the "Ode" after all. The poet's faith must run counter to hard experience, and serves as a last desperate hope in the midst of spiritual devastation. Wordsworth hears the long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith as surely as Matthew Arnold did in "Dover Beach," yet he resists the tidal pull.

The most important reason Wordsworth gives for optimism is Dorothy herself. Though she is only a year younger than her brother, she yet possesses the idealistic, revolutionary fervor that marked his younger mind (or so Wordsworth claims). It seems condescending and narcissistic to view another person as a younger version of one's own self, but I understand the feeling: I feel a similar exhilaration whenever I talk to young postmodernists, leftists, and theory-heads, and I'm sure other people used to feel the same about me. Wordsworth, for his part, seems refreshed rather than peeved on observing how his sister expresses his old idealism, even though he knows she can't hold on to it much longer. He notes that "If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief / Should be [her] portion" (Wordsworth's use of polysyndeton gives each proposed misfortune an extra sting), she can at least remember this moment, in which he comes to love the sad, sorry world both for its own sake and for hers:

Nor wilt thou then forget,
That after many wanderings, many years
Of absence, these steep woods and lofty cliffs,
And this green pastoral landscape, were to me
More dear, both for themselves and for thy sake!

Revolutions fail, buildings fall, and people die. Yet Wordsworth tells me that for others' sake -- and possibly even for our own -- we must rebuild. This time, however, we'll be less bold, and more pragmatic. We'll use traditional building materials, and pour sturdier foundations; we'll make these new structures to serve others' needs as well as our own. Perhaps the result won't be as inspiring or beautiful as what we left behind. Yet it will be good and solid, and will stand when old, discarded theory has turned to dust.

To read the full text of Wordsworth's "Lines," click here.

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